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Valley Town

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Valley Town

Published 1940

Social documentary showing the damage visited on the people of a Pennsylvania steel town by the deployment of new technology. Director: Willard Van Dyke. Script: Spencer Pollard, Willard Van Dyke. Photography: Roger Barlow and Bob Churchill. Music: Marc Blitzstein.

Run time 24:32
Producer Educational Film Institute of New York University and Documentary Film Producers, Inc.
Sponsor Sloan (Alfred P.) Foundation
Audio/Visual Sd, B&W


This is the story of how machines made a "boom" town with factories running at top speed, stores crowded with shoppers, money flowing freely - and of how more machines broke it. It considers the problem of capable men thrown out of good jobs because of high-speed machinery. It gives an idea of what it does to the spirit of a man and of the effect on a family. Finally it offers as one solution the constant training of adults to keep them abreast of new developments ready for new and better jobs.

Produced one year after Willard Van Dyke and Ralph Steiner's landmark film The City, this film once again pleads for audiences (and makers of public policy) to reconsider our familiar landscape not as a given but as a space reflecting conflicting social, economic and cultural interests. Funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation (Sloan was Chairman of General Motors Corporation) in an attempt to counter the negative effects of industrialization and automation, Valley Town shows the devastation visited on an unnamed city when its industrial base shrinks.
In a contemporary description, Valley Town is described as the story of "how machines made a 'boom' town with factories running at top speed, stores crowded with shoppers, money flowing freely Ñ and how machines broke it. It considers the problem of capable men thrown out of jobs because of high-speed machinery. It gives an idea of what it does to the spirit of a man and of the effect on a family. Finally, it offers as one solution the constant training of adults to keep them abreast of new developments ready for new and better jobs." Although the film suggests job training as a solution, it presents a strong picture of unemployment, showing few ways to alleviate it. The only solution seems to be new jobs arising out of the mobilization for World War II.
Temple University anthropologist Jay Ruby has called Valley Town "possibly the first postmodern film," and in fact its mix of genres goes well against the stream of American social documentary. The film even includes a sequence directly influenced by the work of playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht, a kind of sequence rarely found in American films Ñ Marc Blitzstein's Brechtian song by a woman who wonders how she will continue to feed her family. There's also a kind of prefiguring of Italian neorealism in the way Valley Town mobilizes actors to reconstruct sequences that read somewhere between documentary and fiction. The almost-final scene in which workers watch the demolition of smokestacks at the factory in which they once worked puts the boosterism and bluster of From Dawn to Sunset definitively to rest.
Valley Town's lack of faith in corporations as guarantors of economic stability was quickly noticed by its sponsor. The Sloan Foundation represented the wealth of the head of General Motors, whose employment rolls had waxed and waned throughout the Depression. After its successful premiere at the 1940 Steel Workers' Organizing Committee convention, Sloan stopped funding New York University's Educational Film Institute and pulled its three finished films out of release, And So They Live, The Children Must Learn and Valley Town. The first two films concerned conditions in Kentucky and were rereleased with few changes, but not Valley Town.
Valley Town was revised (the revised version appears on this disc). An opening sequence showing an abandoned factory and the graves of steelworkers, accompanied by a dark voiceover from the "Mayor," was cut. The wife's second song ("They say they're tearing down the mills./Why if that was so I know then/One day he'd walk right out of here/And never come back to us again.") was dropped, perhaps because the suggestion of male abandonment was considered too threatening. The final sequence was recut and shortened, dropping most of the workers' conversations and certain words critical of the steel companies spoken by the "Mayor." A new narrator, less abrasive and sharp, replaced Ray Collins, although Collins still is credited. In general, the revised version softened the indictment of corporate irresponsibility and substituted a vaguer statement of support for postwar job retraining. As William Alexander states, "The film's carefully crafted structure was destroyed in order to present the viewer with a different perspective."
The most complete account of Valley Town's production and alteration is in William Alexander, Film on the Left: American Documentary Film from 1931 to 1942. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.

Premiered at the Steel Workers' Organizing Committee convention, Chicago, May 14, 1940.

Valley Town exists in two versions. The version on the disc is that altered by intervention of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The original director's cut is distributed by the Museum of Modern Art Film Library in New York City.

Slums New Castle, Pennsylvania Newcastle Houses Unemployment Smokestacks Demolition Downsizins Workers Labor Steel mills Steel making Steelworkers Labor (steel industry) Open-hearth Houses Monologues Towns Cities Railroads Depression Thirties
[New York University presents the first in a series of films on national economic issues: Valley Town: A Study of Machines and Men. Produced jointly by Educational Film Institute of New York University, Documentary Film Productions, Inc. Script by Spencer Pollard, Willard Van Dyke. Assisted by Helen Files and Paula Swarthe. Commentary by Spencer Pollard. Assisted by David Wolff (courtesy Frontier Films). Music by Marc Blitzstein. Photographed by Roger Barlow, Bob Churchill. Edited by Irving Lerner. Narrated by Ray Collins. Recorded by RCA. Orchestra conducted by Alexander Smallens. Directed by Willard Van Dyke. The people in this film are not actors. They are men and women of an American town. graphic design main titles lettering title design]
Years and years there was always smoke over these houses. Fine mornings, good times. I've been mayor here for twenty years. Twenty years in March. [New Castle, Pennsylvania windows openings curtains drapes draperies light houses homes landscapes aerials towns cities industry Depression Thirties pollution narrators narration streets]
I've lived on the hill where I could watch the people. Men and women who lived by machines and bought machine-made goods. And slept and were wakened to go to the machines.
[clocktowers six o'clock towers steeples men walking leather jackets lighting pipes cigarettes smoking tobacco matches hats housing houses slums lunchpails lunchboxes streets going to work babies children windows railroad crossings freight trains Hornung's Beer taverns bars signs cafes restaurants diners coffee breakfast workers working class men thermos jugs filling coffee rubbing face faces morning train whistles railroads locomotives engines engineers]
I remember when those factories were built. We were pretty happy about it. Concrete and glass and steel. Why, it was like money in the bank. More machines, more jobs.
36 million more men at work in the last 70 years. 18 new industries in the country. Millions of new jobs. Automobiles, gas, radio. Men wanted. Men wanted. [men going to work workers]
Well, what about the men? That's a complicated question. Sometimes the change was slow. Machinery didn't always disturb our lives. The old jobs went, there was trouble, but we got new jobs. Take Russell, for example. Used to make carriages, lived next door to me a good many years. [machinist drill press operator crankshafts machining]
He took to making parts for engines. A man with skilled hands like Tom can turn them to another trade, if the work is not too far different. Even the older men had not so much trouble as you think. Some machines needed skilled men. [calipers measurement machinists]
Almost as many as before. And this work was easier on the back. Or Bill Johansen. Used to be a brakeman on the railroad that ran from the junction across to our town. Now there's a bus runs right alongside the old track. He was out of work about six months. Now he's turning out parts for diesel engines.
Same engines that helped put him out of his job. And that's the way it was. And machines like this, machine looms, came in pretty gradually. Everybody knew they were coming. Times were good. Men had a chance to look around, move to another state, move into our town. Because they heard about our new luck. [textiles weaving]
The steel rolling mill. Three thousand jobs. Had to have skill. Had to have strong arms and hard nerves. There it was. Money for 3,000 families. [steelworkers steel workers]
The machines brought life to our town. [rolling mills sheet steel steelworkers steel workers music manual strength covered heads drinking water refreshment faces jackets]
Good times make good Christmas. Big payrolls from the steel mill, the engine plant, the weaving mill. Plenty of money in town, and it went to buy food and clothes. The same all over the country. [holidays stores shopping main streets decorations festivities consumerism crowds]
Machines making cheaper goods and more of them, and new kinds of products. Quite a few new stores, too. A lot of the young people got selling jobs in those stores and clerical jobs in the offices. Not so long ago either. My own youngest daughter got married. A Christmas marriage. Rang all the church bells in town. We thought prosperity would last forever.
We were able to buy good products shipped from other industrial towns, from everywhere in the U.S., and we shipped our goods in return.
The wheels kept going around. [street scenes traffic railroads trains locomotives steam smoke landscapes railroad tracks railroad crossings water speed freight trains movement music boxcars]
And then the wheels stopped. We thought prosperity would last forever. Now it was over. We hoped it would return. But the machines were idle a long time. So were the men. It wasn't the fault of the machines. We can't blame them for depression. [idleness railroad yards empty boxcars empty streets emptiness desolation deserted Busy Bee Lunch snow decay Depression For Rent sign Eat slums factories machinery]
In fact, machines had often created jobs. But, now there was depression. I never thought I'd see it. Snow on those rollers? Two-thirds of the town on relief? Then when recovery began, when there were orders for steel again, the old mills stayed shut. The years had brought a new method. A new machine. Automatic, high-speed strip mill. [welfare steel mills automation]
For every thirty men who worked before, now there is one. No more strain on the back and shoulders. No more work for 3,000 families. Automatic, high-speed, powerful, accurate, never gets tired, never gets sick. [molten steel rolling flame water cooling]
What am I going home for? What the devil am I going home for? Just to walk in the door? Say, "No job again"? Is that what for? There he is, the old sow. He used to have a job. [soliloquies unemployment Depression walking recitative Marc Blitzstein music avant-garde Brechtian slums housing decay garbage]
Mrs. Kavonky and Jack Kavonky way out in Pittsburgh, trying to land a job there. Well, I'm here! I'm trying to keep the home together here! Home. A nice home. We gotta get outta this dump. Soon. [dumping garbage women feet walking steps slums]
Pete and Joe. We used to hang around together, working at the mill. And now, now I can't stand to look at their faces. They're thinking, and I'm thinking, when is that mill gonna open again? When do we work? There's nothing wrong with me. I can still work. I'm okay. [jalopies automobiles cars unemployment]
Walk in the door. Tell her the same old thing. Tell her that again. See that look in her eyes again. I don't wanna go home. What am I going home for? What the devil am I going home for? [dogs garbage cans trash]
For me, and my kids, 60 cents. For his lunch, another 25 cents. That makes 85. Then there's milk for the baby. I knew it. All right. Don't let him see nothing. Sit down. Give him his dinner. This ain't anything sudden. It happens every day. [Brechtian Kurt Weill recitative women wives mothers money cooking stirring unemployment soliloquies]
And if I said today it'll be different, today you'll come back and tell me, oh well, forget it. Where was I? 85 and 20 cents from a dollar-ten leaves - what does it leave?
You add up the pennies, finding there's always just not enough. So far you can eat, and over your head is some kind of roof. And then you ask yourself, "How long? What happens after all you saved is gone?" Is he scared, too? Look how soft are his hands, from not working so long. [children eating dinner sugar condensed milk bread songs]
Oh, far away, there's a place with work and joy and cheer. Far away, oh far away from here. In my dream some fine day we'll go away from here. Some fine day. But not now. The dream it ends somehow. With never here or now. [faces worry anxiety eyes]
[floor leaks water pans babies crying comforting toasters broken appliances]
I hear that they tell you, we're livin' in a wonderful age. The age of machines, and gadgets and things, an age to wonder at. All right. I'm wonderin'. I'm wonderin' how much I - you can't do no more than try. toasters broken appliances]
[dogs garbage cans trash rubbish demolition cutting tearing down faces workers cigarettes Depression Eisenstein montage falling disappointment smoking wreckage]
As long as the old mill was there, we kept on hoping. We kept our eyes on it. Maybe they'll reopen, maybe next month. But when they cut those smokestacks out of the sky, we had nothing to look at any more. Decent fine workmen every one of them, their hands were trained, but now that training is no good. [idleness unemployment empty houses]
They're no more than unskilled men, until they learn a new skill. But why? We're all good men here. We know our jobs. Why are we finished? Because the strip mills can make the steel cheaper. They can make it cheaper, but they can't make it as good. They can make it as good and cheaper and faster. That's what these new machines are like. But what good are the machines if they throw us out of work? [abandoned factories economics]
Labor saving machines can make more goods for more people. But the machines have come so fast, that the displaced workers have not been able to learn new skills, and find other jobs. Why should these men be thrown away, as if they were obsolete, as if they were broken machines?
I'm only 25 years old. I'm not obsolete. Maybe we can get them to bring some new factories into this city. I'm a steel worker, I worked in a mill 20 years. I couldn't go to work making radios or refrigerators if I did get a job.
It's the same way with millions of trained men. It hit our town hard and sudden. But it's not a local problem, not these days. Our town by itself can't feed these men, can't afford to retrain them. It's a bigger thing than one mayor and one town can possibly handle. It's a national problem. [fires warmth]
A man may be through with his old occupation, but he still can be trained for another job. In the last ten years we've let our reservoir of skill run seriously low. Millions of workers have been idle in each of these ten years. That means millions of man-years of work experience lost
Of skills, allowed to rust. We've needed a retraining program for a long time. Industries need machinists, mechanics, skilled workers of every kind. Methods change. All right, let's train the men for new job. Let's teach them versatile skills. [classified advertising Help Wanted die makers defense mobilization]
It's taken an emergency to get us started on a nationwide scale. But what we learn this year about the problem, about teaching new skills to displaced workers, can help a peacetime economy, as well as national defense. We need trained men more than ever today. Schools in our town and hundreds of others are training men for new jobs, the men who worked in the old steel mill can learn to handle lathes and drills. The men who knew one operation can be trained for a wider usefulness. We're meeting a crisis now. Government and industry are working together to retrain these men. When the crisis is passed, let's remember what we've learned. [welding sparks helmets aircraft engines propellers airplanes aviation training retraining machinists foremen C-clamps]
New automatic processes will keep on coming; we need them. But let's keep the workers up to date. Let's keep their skills as modern as the new machines.
[The End end titles]



Reviewer: JSBejma - favoritefavorite - February 19, 2015
Subject: Poor Pennsylvania
Later those updated steel mills would close too. Union labor got too expensive. Steel industry goes elsewhere.

Then, years later, greenies and EPA louts in Washington would close down the coal mines. (never mind the invention of the scrubber - just fork over three times as much for that electricity, because they said so)

Today I can't imagine anything going on in the Keystone state except semis toodling across the place. Wanna stay there? Then learn how to sling coffee in a Petro station. I guess that's all that's left.

BTW, this film shows what REAL air pollution looks like - essentially nonexistent for the past 40 years, coal, or no coal.

I've seen this film before somewhere. Depressing.
Reviewer: donwert - favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - February 6, 2010
Subject: There More Things Change...
Interesting film about a small steel mill town in Pennsylvania hard hit by the Depression when the mill closes and throws thousands out of work.
When some production is resumed, the mill has been outfitted with new machines that can produce steel with a fraction of the manpower
previously required, thus insuring continued mass unemployment. The film ends with an appeal to retrain workers. Today, the role of job-killing automation is played by offshore manufacturing and the retraining issue is very much with us.

The narrator, supposedly the mayor of the town, is actor Ray Collins, best known to American viewers for his role as Lt. Tragg on the old "Perry Mason" TV series.
Reviewer: Spuzz - favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - August 24, 2005
Subject: No peace in the valley here
Pretty much your standard The factory is closing, look at all the displaced people! film here, but theres some nice flourishes here and there. All the people in the film are not supposedly actors, and some of them are really good. Especially the woman playing the wife, who sings her lines mostly (!!), and some footage, which Im positive Ive seen before of a smokestack coming down. And again, weve got multiple angles of it. So hmm, where did this come from? Im almost positive it came from a business film of some sort. It would have been interesting to find out whether the management people took the footage from the anti-company film, or vice versa
Reviewer: Christine Hennig - favoritefavoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - October 9, 2002
Subject: Valley Town
This 1930s documentary about the impact of the Depression on steelworkers in a Pennsylvania town stands in stark contrast to the optimistic corporate films in this archive and the Our Secret Century discs, and yet it shares certain traits with them as well. This film shows us the downside of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. A steel town thrives from all the new industries providing jobs for its citizens and lots of nifty machine-made goods to buy. But then the Depression hits and factories close down. Two thirds of the workforce is thrown out of work. And when some of the factories open up again, it's with new, high-speed automated equipment, which requires much fewer workers. The despair of the unemployed workers and their families is shown, as is the need for aggressive retraining programs, so that the workers can find new jobs. This film uses a lot of the same techniques as the corporate-sponsored films, but with a very different message. Thus it reminds me a lot of those other films, but in stark counterpoint. The initial images of thriving factories are a lot like those in Master Hands, but with the looming specter of the inevitable closing of the plant hovering over them. We see a worker walking home, like in From Dawn to Sunset, but this worker is not walking home from work, but from another unsuccessful day looking for a job. He walks through a run-down slum area, rather than one of the pretty neighborhoods in the other film. And instead of hearing voices singing about his "perfect life", you hear him thinking about how he dreads going home and seeing once again the disappointment in his wife's face when he tells her he hasn't found work yet. There's even a musical interlude featuring a housewife, like in Design for Dreaming. But this housewife isn't having pretty dreams about a rosy future, she's adding up all the family expenses in her head and worrying about where the money's going to come fromÂÂto her, the future looks pretty bleak. A touching film that provides a good dose of reality to the archive and to the Our Secret Century series.
Ratings: Camp/Humor Value: N/A. Weirdness: ****. Historical Interest: *****. Overall Rating: *****. Also available on Our Secret Century, Vol. 2: Capitalist Realism.
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